Editor's note:

We are nev­er more the Church,” Richard affirms, than in our iden­ti­fi­ca­tion with those who suf­fer.” Being raised, as we have been, in a cul­ture adept at suf­fer­ing avoid­ance,” the call to embrace suf­fer­ing is a dif­fi­cult con­cept for most of us to grasp. Our abil­i­ty to do so requires that we delib­er­ate­ly counter our per­son­al habits of avoid­ance by turn­ing to embrace a new habit of engage­ment with the real world.” Here Richard pro­vides steps for us to take in mak­ing this impor­tant shift. God’s work in our lives can be painful, but His ulti­mate goal is to trans­form us into some­thing bet­ter.” (C.S. Lewis, , p.205)

—Miriam Dixon

Grow­ing Edges

A fun­ny thing hap­pened to me on the way to writ­ing this arti­cle on suf­fer­ing. (Not fun­ny in the sense of humor­ous; more in the sense of a com­e­dy of errors.) It began with surgery on my foot to cor­rect some old injuries (ful­ly intend­ed and planned for)… which led to an infec­tion in the foot (not intend­ed at all)… which led to tak­ing antibi­otics to fight the infec­tion (not intend­ed but a good thing)… which led to a seri­ous aller­gic reac­tion to the antibi­otics (most def­i­nite­ly not intend­ed)… which led to an overnight stay in the Inten­sive Care Unit at a near­by hos­pi­tal (cer­tain­ly not intend­ed but most instructive).

While much of what hap­pened these past days was not intend­ed by me, it afford­ed an excel­lent oppor­tu­ni­ty to deep­en in the knowl­edge that all things work togeth­er for good for those who love God, who are called accord­ing to his pur­pose” (Rom. 8:28). I also expand­ed my under­stand­ing of the insight of James into the ways tri­als pro­duce in us a patient endurance (Jam. 1:2 – 4).

Suf­fer­ing Avoidance

In the future we are going to look back on 2005 as The Year of Suf­fer­ing.” The most iden­ti­fy­ing fea­tures of that year were the Asian tsuna­mi, the hur­ri­canes on the Gulf Coast, and the earth­quake in Pak­istan. These nat­ur­al dis­as­ters brought death to mul­ti­plied tens-of-thou­sands and have dis­placed many more.

These ter­ri­ble nat­ur­al dis­as­ters remind us that suf­fer­ing is painful­ly real. Now, this knowl­edge is impor­tant to us today for we live in a cul­ture of suf­fer­ing avoid­ance.” To be hit in the gut by suf­fer­ing on a mas­sive scale shocks us back into real­i­ty, and that real­i­ty is that suf­fer­ing is a fact of human exis­tence as we know it. We had bet­ter get used to it. We live in a good world gone bad. Even the cre­ation which is so beau­ti­ful in so many ways has been affect­ed by the Fall and that is how we expe­ri­ence it.

These all but over­whelm­ing nat­ur­al dis­as­ters are com­prised of mul­ti­plied mil­lions of sto­ries of indi­vid­ual suf­fer­ing. And it is the indi­vid­ual human suf­fer­ing that we must see and under­stand and refuse to run from.

We speak in Chris­t­ian the­ol­o­gy of the vic­ar­i­ous suf­fer­ing of Christ. By this we mean more than Christ’s sac­ri­fice on Cal­vary, though we do mean to include this piv­otal event. On the cross Jesus, the Christ, took into him­self all the sins and sor­rows of the past, present, and future, and through his blood redeemed it all. Jesus expe­ri­enced, how­ev­er, not only a cross-death but also a cross-life. As the Son of God walked among us in the flesh he con­stant­ly and con­sis­tent­ly iden­ti­fied with those who suf­fer; the bruised and the bro­ken, the poor and the weak, the hope­less and helpless.

Stand­ing With… Aching With… Weep­ing With…

This is where you and I come in. We are nev­er more the Church than in our iden­ti­fi­ca­tion with those who suf­fer. This is one vital way we par­tic­i­pate in the vic­ar­i­ous suf­fer­ing of Christ (Phil. 3:10). This is why mis­sion hos­pi­tals have always been such an impor­tant ele­ment in mis­sion pen­e­tra­tion through­out his­to­ry. Learn­ing to stand with, ache with, weep with those who suf­fer may not be every­thing, but it cer­tain­ly stands close to the cen­ter of our appren­tice­ship to Jesus. And it is right here that the watch­ing world will be able to see our love. It is love in action, love with skin on it. Here we need to be sharply counter-cul­tur­al. Rather than avoid suf­fer­ing at all costs we inten­tion­al­ly embrace suf­fer­ing to the glo­ry of God and the good of all people.

I urge you: don’t run from suf­fer­ing. It is here. It is real. If you have not expe­ri­enced it per­son­al­ly as yet, believe me, you will. And, frankly, it is all around you — at home, at work, among neigh­bors and friends.

Two Chal­lenges for Avoid­ing Suf­fer­ing Avoidance

So now, here is the first chal­lenge I would like to place before us: find some­one who is suf­fer­ing with­in your cir­cle of near­ness. Our spir­i­tu­al for­ma­tion is first always local and spe­cif­ic. So, find a suf­fer­ing human being. This will come to you as a result of prayer­ful watch­ful­ness to those in your world. Neigh­bors. Friends. Even strangers. Then sim­ply be with this per­son and allow what hap­pens to hap­pen. You will be led I am sure.

This is where we begin, but it is not where we end. Our cir­cle of near­ness needs to be expand­ed. So here is my sec­ond chal­lenge: inten­tion­al­ly step out­side of your cir­cle of near­ness. Expe­ri­ence a short term mis­sion trip. Vis­it Auschwitz. Read Bury My Heart at Wound­ed Knee. Take a plunge expe­ri­ence into the urban life in one of our large cities.

Under­tak­ing this sec­ond chal­lenge will expand your cir­cle of near­ness and will guide you to the next step. I can­not describe that next step for you because it will be indi­vid­ual and spe­cif­ic to your own expe­ri­ence and gift set. You will be led I am sure. Then, mind the Light.

Grow­ing Together

We begin this sec­tion on prax­is with three reflec­tion exercises.

  1. Begin with a reflec­tion on the rea­sons our cul­ture is so com­mit­ted to suf­fer­ing avoid­ance. How does this avoid­ance evi­dence itself? What fac­tors come into play to push us in this direc­tion? Are there ways you find your­self par­tic­i­pat­ing in suf­fer­ing avoidance?
  2. Now, enter a time of reflec­tion on suf­fer­ing by read­ing the book of Job. In The Ren­o­varé Spir­i­tu­al For­ma­tion Bible we write about this: Job, in reac­tion to his own suf­fer­ing, demon­strates that there sim­ply is no easy rela­tion­ship between good for­tune and right­eous­ness or between mis­for­tune and wrath. He finds that life is a mys­tery that can be faced only by trust in and reliance upon God. And this mys­tery eludes the easy answers of his com­pan­ions and even his own best expla­na­tions. It defies Job’s rea­son and shat­ters the bound­aries of his under­stand­ing — as it does our own. In the end, suf­fer­ing chal­lenges us to trust in a God, who, in ways beyond our know­ing, con­trols the ulti­mate des­tinies of humans and nations” (p. 718).
  3. As suf­fer­ing is such a chaos-induc­ing expe­ri­ence, the lessons of suf­fer­ing resist easy cat­e­go­riza­tion. We quick­ly learn that suf­fer­ing will chal­lenge our deep­est con­vic­tions and strongest beliefs. Our quest to rec­on­cile suf­fer­ing with the love of God can lead to despair … or to a deep­er knowl­edge of the love of God. Con­sid­er: Are there ways suf­fer­ing can teach us patience and endurance? Can it lead us to trust in God so as to avoid despair? Can it help us see that God’s real­i­ty is beyond the scope of our indi­vid­ual wish­es and desires?
  4. Okay, with these three reflec­tions in hand begin work­ing on the two chal­lenges I out­lined in the cov­er arti­cle: find some­one in need near you and then increase your cir­cle of near­ness so that gen­uine com­pas­sion can flow out to an ever-expand­ing num­ber of peo­ple. Remem­ber, focus­ing on spe­cif­ic exer­cis­es like these are meant to help us devel­op a habit of engage­ment with the real world and to defeat the habit of suf­fer­ing avoid­ance. William Penn wrote, True god­li­ness does not turn men out of the world, but enables them to live bet­ter in it and excites their endeav­ors to mend it.”

God’s work in our lives can be painful, but his ulti­mate goal is to trans­form us into some­thing bet­ter. Imag­ine your­self as a liv­ing house. God comes in to rebuild that house. At first, per­haps, you can under­stand what he is doing. He is get­ting the drains right and stop­ping the leaks in the roof and so on. You knew that those jobs need­ed doing and so you are not sur­prised (C. S. Lewis, Mere Chris­tian­i­ty, p. 205).

We’re glad you’re here!

Help­ing peo­ple like you abide with Jesus is why we post resources like this one. Always ad-free, Ren­o­varé is sup­port­ed by those who know soul-care is vital. Would you join us?

Donate >

Orig­i­nal­ly pub­lished in Per­spec­tive (Feb­ru­ary 2006).

Originally published January 2006